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Unlocking the Brain’s Secrets

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Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elects Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives, (Random House, 2010, $26) was described by Kirkus Review as “a tour into dark realms of the psyche by a personable guide.” Little India talked to Vedantam on the risks and rewards of our unconscious hidden impulses.

Implicit association tests on skin tone tests show that nearly 70% of people are biased toward white tones. But the fact that people have a racial bias is not the same thing as being racist. Can you explain that difference?

The point that you are raising is an extremely important point — that these biases tell us what our attitudes are. When you say someone is racist, racism does not lie in their attitude. It lies in their behavior. We may have a prejudiced attitude, but it is only when we choose to to express those attitudes as behavior that we become racists. A large number of Americans have prejudiced attitudes, but that does not necessarily mean that they are always acting in prejudiced ways. Even Americans who think of themselves as prejudiced can continue to act deliberately in unprejudiced ways and in so we would not be able to call them racists, even if their attitudes were racially biased.

There is also a distinction between conscious bias and bias of the hidden brain.

When you talk about bias there are two kinds of bias. Biases that exist at the conscious level of people who can consciously feel that people from a particular group are inferior or should be inferior and kept down. Then there is the unconscious attitude where at the conscious level they feel they are not biased, but at the unconscious level express biased attitudes. In both these cases, I would argue that what eventually matters is action. What eventually matters is what this person does with the conscious and unconscious attitude. If the person acts in a prejudiced way, the person is racist regardless of whether it came from the conscious or the unconscious.

If hidden brain biases do not lead to discriminatory actions then why is that bias important at all?

If unconscious attitudes and biases never manifested into behavior and action then I would agree that they are not important at all. The truth of the matter is that they regularly translate into behavior and action. There is a wide body of experimental research that shows those who have unconscious prejudices act in prejudiced ways without their own awareness. You can demonstrate in all kinds of different ways that they will be more likely to support certain political positions and not support other political positions. They are likely to behave in a friendly way to some people and unfriendly way to other people. There have been experiments evaluating how people make judgments in the criminal justice system and you can show that their unconscious biases have profound affect on whether they think someone has acted in criminal ways and the sentence the criminal ought to get for his or her offence. It is actions that count. The issue is that unconscious attitude often produce prejudicial actions and the insidious thing is that people do not have an awareness that they have acted in a prejudiced way, because they are not consciously prejudiced.

Most of the evidence you discuss in your book relates to the United States. Are there regional differences in other parts of the world?

I can say with great confidence that the biases that I describe in the book are universal biases. The ability to feel biases, the tendency to feel biases is a universal phenomenon. It is a human condition that I am describing. The particular form the bias takes depends on the culture and the local context. The biases that might be expressed in India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka will be different to the biases that would be expressed in the United States or Canada, because the context is different, the groups are different. For example the issue of caste might be a much bigger issue in India. It would not be an issue here at all. The issue of sect might be very important in Pakistan. Which sect of Islam you come from could play a very important role in our conscious biases. The underlying architecture of the brain, which allows the brain to feel certain kinds of biases, that is universal across people everywhere. The particular shape that the biases take in each context is shaped by that culture in that context.

What do you think are the consequences in India or among Indians in the US of light skin tone preferences?

I think in the US it has been very systematically researched that differences in skin tone leads to significant differences in people’s socio-economic status. Those that are lighter skin make significantly more money in the United States than those who are darker skin. African Americans who are lighter skin receive significantly more lenient sentences in the judicial system than African Americans who are darker skinned. Now I have no doubt that the same phenomenon applies in India that given two Indians or two Pakistanis, skin tone does matter in all kinds of different ways — whether someone gets hired for a job, whether they are suitable for promotions perhaps in the criminal justice systems what kind of punishment someone gets for committing a crime.

I do not know of a systematic research that has looked at this empirically. I am not saying that research has not been conducted, I am saying that I am not personally familiar with the research. But I would expect that the same phenomenon would hold true that whiteness is so prized not only in matrimonial ads, where people seek out fair skinned brides and bride grooms, but all kind of domains professional domains, law, medical treatments, who gets access to treatment and who does not.

You mention that the genesis of the hidden brain is the evolutionary process, which actually had positive functions at some stage. At this stage do you think there are aspects of the hidden brains impact which are positive?

I am glad you asked that question. I think much of what the hidden brain does is positive. It plays an enormously useful role in much of everyday life. The book, it is true, focuses much more on the insidious aspects of the hidden brain. But in our everyday lives we would be lost without our hidden brains. A friend of mine is an adult and she is just learning to drive a car. She finds it extraordinarily difficult and stressful. She is thinking about everything, she is dong. She is thinking about holding the steering wheel, how much to turn it, how much to press the accelerator, when to watch out for the people on the sidewalk, to gauge when the traffic light is going to turn yellow. She is doing all this with her conscious mind. As a result it is completely exhausting for her. As everyone who knows how to drive would immediately recognize, that’s not what experienced drivers do. When I am behind the wheel of the car I am not even thinking about driving. The reason is that my hidden brain has taken over that activity. It is essentially driving the car of me and freeing up my conscious mind to pay attention to something else, conversation with somebody sitting next to me in the car or a program on the radio. So in many ways our hidden brain is our ally in everyday life. It automates many things that we have done many times before and have already mastered and without the hidden brain we would be paralyzed because every small thing, like walking, talking, social interactions, judging what somebody’s expression means every one of those things would have to be done by the conscious mind through deliberate efforts and that would be exhausting

One thing I found disquieting at the end of the book was that the only bulwark you offered against the negative biases is to develop an awareness of them and reason. Is there something more we can do?

There is great deal we can do as a society, but that also requires the exercise of reason. Let us take the subject of risk. As a society we have chosen to follow the dictates of the human brain and that is why we spend so much time talking about terrorism and so little talking about suicide or heart diseases, even though their threat to American lives is so much more than from terrorism. So when I say we should exercise reason, I do not mean to just exercise reason as individuals. I also mean exercising reason from the point of view of policy, from the point of view of policy makers, society. Though we cannot necessarily change how our hidden brains work we can construct institutions that can essentially protect us from our own hidden brains. So when it comes to making racist decisions about jobs, for example, it may not always be possible to check our hidden brains, because sometimes we are just not aware of our prejudices. We don’t know where they may be coming from, so what we can do that at an institutional level we can make sure that we have systems that can check on us — integrity checks that can establish that the outcomes of what we are doing are fair and accurate. I would argue that in the end, all the defenses that we have against the hidden brain do come down to reason. They don’t all necessarily have to be at the individual level. They can be the outcome of reason at the institutional level, society level too.

What can individuals do in their own lives?

There are two or three things. First is to make a systematic effort to understand our own biases. If we don’t even know that they exist, they will have complete sway over us, manipulating us. I would ask individuals to become aware of their biases. There is a range of psychological tests, including Implicit Association Test, which is one way to do it. There are many other ways to figure out whether we are acting in biased way. Another thing you could do is to have other people give you feedback as to how you are doing, how you are coming across…. So when you feel something strongly that you know something is right, that a particular point of view is right just admit that it seems this position is right to me, but I have to concede that I might be wrong. If I had to sum up in a word the word would be humility. What individuals can do is to bring humility into their everyday lives, where they are little less sure about themselves, because they recognize at least the potential hidden bias.


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Arts & Entertainment | Books | Magazine | February 2010

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